I did not grow up bereft of music. At my grandmother’s house I listened to melodies produced by Don Reno, Red Smiley and the Tennessee Cutups, and early my uncle introduced me to the ballads of the Johnnys—Horton and Cash.
What passes for classical music is a function of the culture in which you were raised, and this genre of music was as classical as it gets in the hills of Southwest Virginia. A violin in Carnegie Hall is a fiddle in a country store in Floyd.
Along the way I listened to compositions by composers in the tradition of Western civilization, and I grew to appreciate their grandeur, complexity and beauty. I listened for hours to The Grand Canyon Suite by Ferde Grofe and, while at that time I had never set eyes on the Grand Canyon, as I listened to this symphony and watched the black disc spin at 33 and 1/3 rpms I could picture mules swaying down the narrow trail, thunderstorms breaking over the abyss and the vivid vermillion of the Painted Desert. Transcendent is the best word I can conjure up for the experience of listening to this genre of classical music.
One of our members, Dr. Ellis West, was kind enough to share with me a feature story about Paul Jacobs, the head of the organ department at the Juilliard School in New York City. The story appeared in the May/June, 2014 issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine. Jacobs, who has played at River Road Church in the past, says that organ music reconnects the listener with something transcendent, “ a vision of human existence well beyond the merely utilitarian, or even the readily comprehensible.”
Organ, he says, “is a preserved bastion of the spiritual…the vehicle for some of the most elaborate and monumental musical expressions of spiritual experience.” This is essential in a culture that Jacobs suggests is “pervasively reoriented around self-fulfillment and immediate gratification.”
There is, concludes Jacobs, an ethical dimension of making music. We have an obligation to keep alive the classical tradition, particularly as it is played on the organ, because it offers us an experience that reaches beyond the immediate and tangible to that which is infinite and ultimate.
Not every church needs, or can afford, a grand pipe organ. But River Road Church is one of the places in Richmond that offers a space and instrument sufficient to focus our thoughts on God, to experience the transcendent, and by this to be changed for the sake of God’s Kingdom.